Gordon: Cardinals can't afford to lose Molina

2012-02-22T12:15:00Z 2012-02-23T12:41:06Z Gordon: Cardinals can't afford to lose MolinaBY JEFF GORDON stltoday.com
February 22, 2012 12:15 pm  • 

The Cardinals simply must lock in Yadier Molina with a contract extension.

He knows it, his agent Melvin Roman knows it and Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak knows it. If this leverage results in Molina collecting excessive pay for his twilight years, so be it.

That is just the cost of doing business. It doesn’t diminish the need to keep this cornerstone player right where he is.

Consider the factors in play:

• With Albert Pujols off to finish his career in Southern California, fans will expect the Cardinals to buck up and keep their other key players. Had Albert stayed, budgeting would have been tight. Keeping the nucleus intact would have been difficult. But Albert is gone, so there are no excuses not to keep Molina, Adam Wainwright and other vital Cards as their contracts wind down.

Moving forward, this team will win (or lose) with its pitching. The organization has assembled an army of promising young pitchers. To fully exploit that apparent strength, the Cards will need to have a savvy, take-charge catcher behind the plate. Does anybody work the game better than Molina?

• This team doesn’t have a successor in line to replace Molina. Tony Cruz appears capable of backing up, but he is a long way from being a candidate to start. The same goes for Bryan Anderson, a good hitter who is still learning to work the game. Maybe in a year the Cards will feel better about their long-term catching, but right now it appears iffy.

• There aren’t a lot of impact catchers in this sport. When teams get one, they typically hang on to him. Replacing Molina through free agency or a trade would be difficult. This team may be able to replace much of Albert’s offense through collective effort, but how could the Cards replace all the things Molina does for the team?

The Molina money shouldn’t get too crazy. History works against catchers getting paid. Few have ever earned more than $10 million per year. Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million contract is an anomaly in the industry, since Mauer is getting paid to hit. If the Cards can afford to give No. 4 starting pitcher Kyle Lohse upwards of $12 million per year, the team can certainly afford to make Molina one of the highest-paid catchers of all time.

Mozeliak paid significant money for the twilight years of Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran. Some independent analysts figure he overpaid both while trying to keep the 2012 team in the hunt. So why would he suddenly turn frugal when dealing with the Molina camp? Yadier is glad to have Furcal and Beltran on his side, but he understandably wants to get paid as well.

• This team seems to have can’t-miss prospects at every other position, so Mozeliak will have ample opportunity to control year-to-year payroll costs. If Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Zack Cox, Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras can all perform well as young (and thus low-paid) pros, a big catching salary will be manageable.

Although Molina would likely fade toward the end of a four- or five-year extension, he could still offer strong leadership. His history with the various emerging pitchers would have some value, just as Chris Carpenter will have value for as long as he pitches.

• With new manager Mike Matheny settling in at the helm, the Cards don’t need a nagging issue hanging over the team. Securing Molina would eliminate a potentially annoying storyline while giving a critical player some peace of mind.

All these factors point toward the Cards taking care of Molina, even if the cost makes Bill DeWitt Jr. a bit uncomfortable.

The Cards have a good thing going, even with Pujols and Tony La Russa off to other adventures. The Cards appear positioned to contend for years to come.

So why would the organization jeopardize that by haggling with such a key player?

Unless the Molina camp has absolutely ridiculous salary expectations, the Cards must resolve this matter before breaking camp.

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Jeff Gordon

This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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